By Sarah Nagem
A Robeson County man says he plans to challenge a North Carolina law that prevents him from running for sheriff.
Scottie Deese, 45, served as a deputy in the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office for about two years until he was fired in late 2020. Now he wants to run against his former boss, Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, in this year’s election for the county’s top law enforcement job.
However, Deese said he was convicted of a felony when he was 18 for a crime he did not commit. He went on to serve in the Army and open a construction business, and the criminal charge was expunged.
Under state law, a convicted felon is not allowed to run for sheriff in North Carolina, even if the charge was expunged from his or her record.
Deese said the law is unfairly harsh, especially since he was convicted as a teenager. He said he plans to file a lawsuit and argue his case before a judge.
Deese said he was a student at Lumberton High School when he pleaded guilty to burning personal property although he had nothing to do with the crime. A family friend who committed the crime convinced him to take responsibility, he said.
“I believe once they hear my story and find out, ‘He’s a war veteran, man. This happened when he was in high school. How can you hold this against a child?’” Deese said. “And it’s been 27 years.”
In 2010, nearly 85% of North Carolina voters who cast ballots voted in favor of amending the state constitution to prevent convicted felons from running for sheriff.
Last year, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed into law House Bill 312, which says a convicted felon is disqualified from any sheriff’s race even if the criminal charge was expunged. An expungement clears the charge from someone’s record, effectively saying the conviction never occurred.
“Previously, a person was not precluded from holding the office of Sheriff if the person’s felony had been expunged,” Caroline Myrick, a data analyst for the N.C. State Board of Elections, said in an email. “House Bill 312 made it clear that a felony conviction, even if expunged, prevents a person from filing for the office of Sheriff or being appointed to that office. However, a person who receives an unconditional pardon of innocence for their felony may file for the office of Sheriff or be appointed to that office.”
State Rep. Allen McNeill, a Republican who represents Moore and Randolph counties, was a primary sponsor for the House bill. He worked for the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office for decades before he retired in 2009.
Deese said he questioned why state Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, sponsored a companion bill in the senate.
Britt said his decision to file the bill had nothing to do with Deese’s interest in running for sheriff. Talks about the bill mostly centered on former Davidson County Sheriff Gerald Hege, according to Britt.
Hege, who served as the Davidson sheriff for 10 years, pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts related to alleged corruption in his office. He ran for the office again in 2010, when the constitutional amendment was on the ballot. After his record was expunged, he ran for office in 2018, The Dispatch reported.
“Those discussions were had around the (legislative) building,” Britt said of Hege. “Nobody around the building talked about Scottie Deese. Nobody knows who Scottie Deese is.”
Qualifications – and disqualifications – for sheriffs vary by state.
In South Carolina, candidates for sheriff must “not have been convicted of or pled guilty to a felony or a crime of moral turptiude.” Montana law says a candidate for sheriff qualifies only if he or she “has not been convicted of a crime for which the person could have been imprisoned in a federal or state penitentiary.”
Rumors and accusations
Wilkins, a Democrat who has served as sheriff since 2018, faces no opposition in the May 17 primary. But drama surrounding the election is playing out on social media through rumors and accusations.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Wilkins said there was “an online attack” against his wife.
“She has been accused of several things but most disturbingly is being a victim of a drug overdose this past week and missing work last week due to it,” Wilkins posted.
In an interview with the Border Belt Independent, Wilkins said he and his wife hired a lawyer to handle the situation. He said his wife, who works at Robeson Community College, had to explain to her superiors that the rumor was false.
Wilkins said the rumor even reached his church, where his wife was placed on a prayer list.
“I became very upset about that,” he said.
Wilkins has also been criticized for previous corruption charges levied against the sheriff’s office.
In the 1980s, a state task force investigated allegations of corruption in the office led by then-Sheriff Hubert Stone. Wilkins was a deputy at the time. No one was charged.
Years later, through Operation Tarnished Badge, several sheriff’s office employees, including then-Sheriff Glenn Maynor, faced corruption-related charges. Maynor was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
“I was never a suspect in anything,” said Wilkins, who has also worked with the U.S. Marshal’s Office.
Meanwhile, Deese criticized Wilkins’ handling of the fatal shooting of Matthew Oxendine. Oxendine, who had a history of substance misuse and mental illness, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s SWAT team in January 2021.
Some people, including Oxendine’s family and Deese, say the deputies mishandled the situation and should have tried harder to help Oxendine.
After seeing a report from the State Bureau of Investigation, Robeson County District Attorney said the deputies would not face charges.
“Who in their right mind would agree that killing Matthew Oxendine was OK?” Deese said.
‘Going to keep fighting’
Deese said he believes he was fired from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office because he wanted to run for sheriff.
Wilkins said that’s not true.
Citing personnel matters, Wilkins said he cannot say why Deese was fired.
Deese, who owns a construction company, said he was asked when he applied for Basic Law Enforcement Training at Robeson Community College if he had ever been convicted of a felony. He was asked again when he applied to the sheriff’s office.
On both occasions, he said, he marked “no” on the application forms because the charge had been expunged.
Now, Deese says that if he becomes sheriff, he will donate his salary to the community. But his quest for candidacy seems highly unlikely this election season.
Deese said he’s not giving up, however. He wants to run in the general election on Nov. 8 as an unaffiliated candidate.
To run as an unaffiliated candidate for sheriff, a candidate must get signatures from at least 4% of the registered voters in the county. In Robeson, a candidate would need about 2,800 signatures.
Even with the signatures, Deese would have to submit a form verifying that he has not been convicted of a felony before his name can appear on the ballot in the general election, said Tina Bledsoe, director of the Robeson County Board of Elections.
“Whatever the law says is what it is,” Bledsoe said. “He doesn’t have to like it, but it is what it is.”
Deese doesn’t like it.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” he said, “until I’m able to get on that ballot.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem